Dr Seb Rumsby

ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2021-22

Dr Seb Rumsby

ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2021-22

Seb is an interdisciplinary scholar interested in the lived experiences and everyday politics of international development, state governance attempts, migration and religious transformation. Having given a fascinating account of ethno-religious politics in upland Vietnam for his PhD, Seb is now turning his attentions to the plight of undocumented Vietnamese migrants in the UK. In particular, he is interested in the complex relationships of support, solidarity and/or exploitation and conflict between more established Vietnamese employers and their co-ethnic migrant workers.

Behind the scenes at the nail salon: an ethnographic exploration into the everyday politics of undocumented Vietnamese migrants in the UK

On 23rd October 2019, 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated lorry trailer in Essex, bringing the plight of undocumented Vietnamese immigration to the UK to the news headlines for a few days. While this tragic episode has been largely forgotten in the tumultuous 2020, the migration networks and journeys have not disappeared. Estimates of the number of undocumented Vietnamese immigrants in the UK vary massively from 20,000 to 70,000; they almost all end up working in nail salons, Vietnamese restaurants or illegal cannabis farms. Apart from this, we currently know very little about this dynamic and expanding community.

This project will be the first ethnographic study of the everyday political economy of undocumented Vietnamese migrants in the UK. Foregrounding the agency, perspectives and lived experiences of research participants, I will use the ISRF to conduct pioneering research into how Vietnamese migrants navigate and respond to home office threats and state bureaucracy, informal labour and exploitation, changing gender divisions of labour and conflicts within the UK Vietnamese community. Specifically, I will investigate the following questions as well as addressing new themes which may emerge from fieldwork:

1. How do undocumented Vietnamese migrants understand and navigate communal/kinship-based/close relationships of exploitation?

2. What alliances or animosities exist between various subsectors of the UK Vietnamese population? 

3. How are gender relations affected by new divisions of labour entailing migration and undocumented life?

4. How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the above dynamics and survival strategies of those without access to welfare benefits?

Building on my experience conducting ethnographic fieldwork among marginalised groups and fluency in Vietnamese, this ground-breaking research will be of practical benefit to one of the most difficult-to-reach communities in the UK, as well as being highly relevant to important real world debates on labour, immigration and citizenship policy.

Contacting Fellows

If you would like to contact any of our Fellows to discuss their ISRF-funded work, please contact Dr Lars Cornelissen (Academic Editor) in the first instance, at lars.cornelissen@isrf.org.